Nehemiah 9: First Things First

We are working through the book of Nehemiah this summer in our church. Its focus is  following God through a broken mess. This is a written variation of the sermon I preached on Chapter 9.

One of the deepest hurts we experience is an unkept promise. For me, when I was eight, there was one promise from my dad that never got fulfilled. We have a giant tree just over the side of the hill we lived on. One of my biggest dreams was to have a treehouse built in the form of a pirate ship. He said that if I designed the treehouse than he would built it. So I was given some architecture books and with a basic builder’s book, I began to design this treehouse. I spent time on the drawing. the measurements, and eventually finished it. I showed it to him, but as time went by we never started on the treehouse. I was promised a treehouse. I worked for a treehouse. To this day there is still no treehouse. Now, I have since forgiven him, but for a long time that bothered me. It was an unkept promise.

Unkept promises bother us, especially when it is something we worked for or is attached to our dreams. We have all had someone not keep a promise to us. Most of us would say it is not the biggest deal in the world, but it just does not sit right. When we do not keep a promise to a child, spouse, or friend, we can hear the “but you promised…” going through our heads. Sometimes unkept promises or unfulfilled expectation are so prevalent in our lives that it becomes an expectation that someone will let us down and not keep their word. We can almost promise that someone will not keep a promise. This is true because we find ourselves swearing on our mother’s graves or saying the promise twice, or want to make it legally binding because someone will surely try and get out of it. It is sad that we even need to make promises because the we cannot trust a straight answer. We bring baggage when it comes to promises.

When we arrive in Chapter 9 of Nehemiah, we step right into a process of renewal for the Israelite people. Israelites have overcame distractions and disagreements. They have finished the wall. They have seen physical signs of new life. They are experiencing grace first hand. Now, they hunger for the Word of God. They hear it preached and taught; then they live out what is says.

So far, the focus has been on the people. We have seen their story. We have heard how to deal with the day-to-day through the eyes of Nehemiah. Now, we have stepped into the process of Israel becoming a holy nation, the restoration of a culture, and returning to a lifestyle of obedience to God. We have discussed the doing and the dealing. Now, we must step back and look at the narrative because Israel is being restored for one purpose–God’s glory.

The seventh month is a big month in the Jewish calendar. At the start of the month the Jews celebrate the Feast of Trumpets, on the tenth day of the month they celebrate the Day of Atonement, and then the Feast of Booths, which this Israelites keep in response to the Word of God in Chapter 8. This process of spiritual renewal must continue as the Israelites continually respond to the Word of God. The first five verses set the scene in continuation of Chapter 8 (with the focus on God’s Word). We now turn to an ‘Act of Prayer’, then Chapter 10 as a result of the previous two comes a Community Commitment.

In Nehemiah 9, the the people of God move from a time of feasting to fasting through hearing the Word on their way to spiritual renewal. Verse one of Chapter 9 starts like this:

“Now on the twenty-fourth day of the month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshipped the Lord their God. On the stair of the Levites stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani; and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah; Shabaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be you glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise” (vv. 1-5 ESV).

The Israelites moved from feasting to fasting. In Chapter 8, the reading and teaching of the Word is vital to respond properly. The Word is central once again. The covenant of God is shared through the Word. These first five verses set the tone for the whole chapter. They were fasting in sackcloth and putting dirt on their heads. That seems so foreign to us. We have no modern act that visually shows humility. This is what they were doing, visibly showing humility.
Ezra and Nehemiah are re-establishing a culture of covenantal obedience. They are following God through a broken mess—a broken mess that the Israelites caused. They are forming a lifestyle around the Word. They are doing this because they have seen and heard, that person who spoke the very words and laws, is a God who is all about a full, abundant, life for His people for His glory.

After a joyful time of reflection in God’s grace is the time for mourning, fasting, and sorrow. It is time do deal with the deeper spiritual mess. The Word says separate themselves from non-covenantal people, just gather together as the family of God. They worship and confess. There are two parts to confession: (1) a confession of sins; and, (2) a confession of who God is.

What we see in the first five verses is that they initially confess sins and iniquities of their fathers. Confession makes us uncomfortable because it means admitting we were wrong. It means being humble enough to admit how you wronged the people you wronged. It is like a parent who asks a child to say “sorry.” The child begrudgingly says sorry. The parent then says, “What for?” The child may say, “Sorry” but what is even more difficult is to get them to say “I am sorry for hitting my brother because I wanted to toy he had.” We cannot fake specific, we can fake general “sorry.” However, just like in Chapter 1 of Nehemiah, the Israelites had to get specific. The nature of their posture, their dress, their attitude becomes even more important. Notice, confession of these sins is not something to be done with those outside the family of God. This is taking care of family business because they had wronged God, their Father.

The feast is over they can go home, but they choose to abide together, listen to the Word together, worship together, confess with each other, and pray together. The prayer that starts off in verse five, starts off like Nehemiah’s prayer in Chapter 1. The culture that Nehemiah was trying to establish, because it comes from God’s Word, is taking root. The broken mess of the Israelite culture is beginning to be restored. They start with a call to prayer, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be you glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise” (v. 5). They are basically saying, “God you are. You have told us. And, we have seen this to be true. You kept your promise. We have seen the scripture in action.”

Israel’s posture is one of humility. Their hearts were now prepared to communicate back to God, after He first spoke to them. We cannot accurately talk to God unless we know His Word within the larger narrative of His character. That makes us uncomfortable. We just want to be able to ask God anything, which was can always talk to Him, but with knowledge of His Word brings substance and meaning to our prayers. Our prayers move from a “wish list” to a promised future. As we continue in Chapter 9, this lifestyle of praying a prayer of promises plays out. The prayer is posted below in its entirety and as you read I want you to make an actual note or a mental one of three things: (1) the words you/your, (2) any characteristic of God, and (3) any time it says God kept a promise. We start in verse six:

“You are the Lord, you alone. You made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heavens worships you. You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (vv. 6-8).
“And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day” (vv. 9-10).
“And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their persuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters. By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them” (vv. 11-15).
“But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell” (vv.16-21).
“And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner. So they took possession of the land of Sihon king of Heshbon and the land of Og king of Bashan. You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and you brought them into the land that you had told their fathers to enter and possess. So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness” (vv. 22-24).
“Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. Therefore, you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore, you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God” (vv. 26-31).
“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress” (vv. 32-37 ESV).

It is a soap opera. It is a passionate love story in which one person continually walks away. This prayer is so rich, that you can spend hours praying and pouring over it. It is deep, so we will start the initial reflection by analyzing the notes I asked you to take. First off, how many yous/yours are there? As you look above you may be trying to recount. Translations differ, I have noted that there is at least 60 yous/yours, which drives the subject matter of this prayer home. This prayer is so rich because this prayer is focused primarily on God.

Next, what characteristics of God does it list? I have listed a few: grace. mercy, good, righteous, loving, slow to anger, ready to forgive. This is how the Israelites described God, in the midst of brokenness renewal, as good, loving, slow to anger. Usually we do not associate this good loving God with the Old Testament, rather we stereotype God as oppressor and mean, yet here a gracious God is. This is the same God who sent the Israelites into exile. The only thing that can overpower a desire is a more powerful desire. You will break laws and rules to get what you want if the desire is powerful enough. The only way you will not break rules and laws to get what you want is if there is a more powerful desire. Their love for God’s lifestyle explained in His Word is a more powerful desire than their desire for sin because they have first hand experienced His kept promises and showed the people of Israel renewed joy and grace!

Finally, how many promises did he keep? Scan back. Take a moment. I believe that there were three explicit promises with at least five times God saving them. This is simply an a prayer of promises.

If I had to summarize this whole prayer down into one sentence it would say this: God is full of grace through keeping his promises, even when we rebel. My natural inkling, like a two year old, is why? Why would God do all this? The people definitely did not deserve it. Look at their track record. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Why, because this is who God is. He is a loving Father who is full of grace and keeps His promises. He loves you. God says, “I want to make you whole again. Look at my track record. I will bring restoration. I will bring healing. I will lead you through this broken mess—together as a family.” He continually does this to display His glory and say, “I am worthy or praise. I am worthy of worship. I am worthy for you to trust me. I am worthy for you to surrender your life to me. I am worthy of your obedience. I am worthy of glory and you are not, so humble yourselves. You are broken and I can make you whole.”

The Israelites have confessed the realities of God and can pray this prayer with confidence. They have separated themselves from the foreigners. They have confessed their sin and the sin of the fathers. They have heard from God and they have responded to what they heard. This prayer cannot be prayed with authenticity, with humility, with confidence without putting first things first. If we were to bring this text to today many times when we pray we forget all that God has done. We have not put the reading of God’s Word, confession, and humility first. Instead, we test Him, when he has already passed the test. We say things like, “God I’ll follow you if…” Or, “God please be faithful..” or even, “God give me a sign.”When he has shown that He is faithful, loving, gracious. We will only know all that he has done if we can step back, look at his track record by putting first things first. The Israelites got fat. Warren Wiersbe notes, “They delighted themselves in God’s great goodness, but they did not delight themselves in the Lord.” They wanted what God had to offer, but not the lifestyle. They wanted the wealth, but not the will.

As we look at God’s story and the story of Israel, God sent them prophets. He sent them signs, yet they grew stubborn and refused to humble themselves. Now, the Israelites have heard from God’s Word and say. Oh my goodness, what have we been doing? They began to humble themselves and submit to God’s Word. As they prayed, they identified themselves with the nation historically and acknowledged their own guilt. Corporately they apologized for their action. Bridge this text for us. We must be willing to follow their example and as the church apologize for our sinful actions. The Israelites, remember, are unique and unlike any other nation historically because they are God’s chosen people. Culture, religion, and government are merged for the Israelites, which is why physical brokenness and spiritual brokenness are intertwined. The Israelites were now back in the land, but everything they worked for was given to someone else. They could not change the circumstances. They were not supposed to rebel against Babylon or have a revolution. No, they were to surrender themselves to a great Master and seek His help. They did more than ask; they made a covenant. “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests” (v. 38). They took a step and made a commitment.

Reflecting on story, I want a story like that, where God’s faithfulness is constantly shown, where I experience constant joy in the midst of brokenness, where grace abounds, where the broken mess is restored. I think we all want to be part of a story like that. We long to feel that. Our heart beats to feel whole. I think we even want to see a church like that. A family like that–one who puts the family history on display. One where the dad keeps his promises. One where the Father promises a new life.

The amazing realization is that this abstract idea or notion, we can have that. It can be a reality. In fact, it is a current reality. And, all God asks for is humility and surrender to Himself–a God who is full of love, grace, and who is the author of life. I do not know any better being to surrender my life to. A God who sent Himself to the cross, so that you may experience grace, forgiveness, restoration, and healing. Today we are going to watch that first hand someone making a choice to be faithful. A choice to surrender and acknowledge their sinful past and new life in Christ. Baptism is surrender to a Father who is full of grace and has, who is, and will forever keep His promises. He gives us a new life and new purpose. Who promises sins washed away, the Holy Spirit, and eternity with Him through His son Jesus.

At this point in the sermon, Charlie Singleton was baptized after his confession of who God is.

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